Matthew McGovern and Rose Donna [Photo: R. Lopez]
Wonderland Ballroom's owners couldn't imagine waiting until their bar turned one to celebrate. So they threw a six-month anniversary party.
"We weren't sure we'd be around for a year, so we figured we'd better go ahead and have a party just in case," says Matthew McGovern, who owns Wonderland with his wife Rose Donna.
For several more months after, their business' future remained in limbo and the husband-wife team constantly questioned their decision to open a bar. Yet Wonderland managed to hit the one-year mark. And then the two-year mark. And another and another until this past year when the pioneering bar on 11th street reached a milestone: a decade in existence.
During the 10-year journey, Wonderland gained a following and remains a beloved institution in Columbia Heights known for its blend of hardcore Monday trivia sessions and lively weekend dance nights — not to mention its eclectic collection of signs and posters.
It's success that McGovern and Donna didn't necessarily expect years ago when they casually talked about the idea of opening a bar. McGovern was bartending at Madam's Organ and Donna was a regular customer when they met and hit it off. Once married, they started mentioning to friends their dream of a bar to call their own. Columbia Heights was an up-and-coming neighborhood and seemed to be the only pocket of the city they could afford. So it felt serendipitous when two different friends called to alert them one morning that Nob Hill, a gay club with a large following in the African-American community, had shut down.
"We looked it up in the tax records and found out that the owner lived on 14th Street," McGovern says. "So I slipped a note under his door and was like, 'We want to rent or buy your place.' He called us the next afternoon and said, 'Sure.'"
They signed on the dotted line on April 15, 2004. By Aug. 8, Wonderland opened. The initial setup was bare bones. Decor primarily came from Donna and McGovern's own collection of quirky posters and signs that has been in their apartment. The now-popular beer garden wasn't added for a few years, so the outside was mostly dirt-covered ground, a chain link fence and bushes that obscured what the establishment was. The actual opening night fell on a Sunday. "A bunch of people came. But by 10 or 11 everyone was gone," Donna says.
Right away, Fridays and Saturdays drew a crowd, mainly because DJs were on hand spinning on the second floor with no cover, a rarity in D.C. then. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, though, were a tougher sell and stayed quiet for some time. The early customers were friends of the couple, some of whom also became early employees. Soon nearby residents started to trickle in as well.
"It would be a nice day, so we'd have the windows open and be outside. All the neighbors walking by were very curious," McGovern says. "Columbia Heights Coffee opened nine months earlier. So between us and them we were the first new businesses on 11th Street street in a dozen or so years. People were excited that something was coming."
The closest bar back then was beloved Mt. Pleasant dive The Raven. Target had yet to open, and the Columbia Heights Metro station had been running for less than three years. At first this posed a challenge. If someone came to Wonderland they were usually going out of their way to get there. Then if they had a lousy time they were stuck since bar staff had to call them a cab to get out of the neighborhood. It's why, one of the earliest indicators that Wonderland would make it iis when taxis began to show up without anyone calling them. Donna says she likes to brag that Wonderland brought taxi drivers to the area — and there's certainly truth to the claim.
Another positive sign that Wonderland was destined to make it came when group houses, which began dominating the burgeoning Columbia Heights housing scene, mentioned the ballroom in their Washington City Paper and Craigslist ads. "They'd describe being 'two blocks from Wonderland' and reference where they were in the neighborhood in relation to how far they were from us," McGovern says. Potential roommates would use Wonderland as a safe, neutral meeting ground.
Couples met inside the bar. Friendships were forged. To this day, the owners take the greatest pride in the friendly vibe they've managed to foster. At its core, they see Wonderland as a neighborhood bar that attracts people from all walks of life and allows them to mingle or keep to themselves.
The diverse mix of clients, in fact, has been a hallmark over the years. Customers young and old, and of different ethnicities and professions are represented. Depending on the night of the week, the bar can feel entirely different. Consistently, Wonderland has enjoyed a reputation as a hipster den. At the same time, McGovern says they'll get young, hip customers who'll come in and complain about it being a hipster bar.
One story the owners like to tell is how two local cops frequently came in for a while. "They'd be at one end of the bar and one night they looked at the other end of the bar and said, 'Yeah, just so you know, I busted that guy once. I busted that guy," McGovern explains.
The slogan remains "Dining, dancing, delirium." "And I think that kind of encapsulates us," Donna says. "Come and hang out and eat and talk with your friends and you can also come and dance and get crazy and that's fine too."
The aspect that has changed over 10 years, however, has been the food and beverage options. The original plan was to be The Raven, only with basic food. That meant the kitchen featured only a grill, and the menu consisted of sausages and foot-long hot dogs. The problem was customers started to tire of just a few items to chow down on over their beers.
"We didn't think about this but, because there was nothing but some takeout joints around, people would come in multiple times a week and they'd eat when they did," McGovern says. "They started saying, 'You need to expand your menu. I like coming but I can only eat so many footlongs."
These regulars were the impetus to add on burgers, then sandwiches, then quesadillas. Since McGovern and Donna took turns tending bar for a while, they also manned the kitchen at times. "When we moved to quesadillas, that was too tough for me," Donna says.
As more food items were introduced cooks came and went as well. Then, about four years ago Wonderland brought on someone the owners consider their first chef: Matt Szymanski, who was working with them on their inventory system and has culinary training.
With Szymanski at the kitchen's helm, Wonderland now offers an ever-increasing selection of salads, vegan items, fish and other (slightly) upscale bar food. The menu changes at least quarterly and Oktoberfest has become an annual time to add in German classic fare like schnitzel and goulash.
Donna says there are no aspirations to start serving small plates or a chef-driven menu. But they aim for good, fresh food that's a decided step up from fast food. "Our menu is twice as big as we ever wanted it to be, but that's OK," McGovern says. "The point is that a lot of our customers don't just come to drink. They come to eat, and they want variety — things that aren't just fried and cheesey."
In terms of drinks, Wonderland started out without draft beer. A variety of Yuengling beers in bottle form were early offerings. Then, more obscure Belgian and German beers became staples, as did hard-to-find brews like Delirium and Stella. Lagunitas IPAs, currently big sellers, as are Bavarian Hefeweizens and, still Yuengling.
"One of our goals has always been to have beers at various price points," McGovern says. "When we opened one of the unique things we did is that you could come here and not have a lot of money in your pocket and buy a Jenny Cream Ale can of beer for $3 and bottle of higher-end beer for $9. So you can really drink across the price spectrum."
Now that Wonderland has reached the 10-year mark, its owners say the hardest challenge is just keeping the environment and attitude that's gotten them to that point. Instead of being an obstacle, the surge in bars and eateries to 11th Street has helped business, they say.
"We're all slightly different. They're also all independent places so we can all exist," says McGovern. "It's actually brought more people to 11th Street and more of an awareness to the strip and made it more of a destination."
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